Apple attracts anti-trust watchdogs

It seems that the US Department of Justice is starting to think Apple is copying Microsoft a little too closely.

According to Associated Press, anti-trust regulators who once seriously smacked Microsoft over the nose with a rolled up newspaper are keen to look under Apple’s bonnet and cut back its power.

The feeling is that Apple has a bit too much power in too many markets for regulators not to notice. Last week, news leaked out that the US Justice Department is considering filing a lawsuit against the company and five US publishers for an alleged scheme that has driven up the prices of electronic books since the release of the iPad.

But it’s quite possible that is just the tip of the iceburg, which could see the DoJ start looking at the way that Apple is trying to kill of competition in the tablet market too.

David Balto, an antitrust attorney who was a Federal Trade Commission policy director during the Clinton administration, said that iTunes, which offers mobile applications, books, newspapers, magazines, textbooks, movies and music, has become essential for a lot of people.

So far, though, government regulators haven’t paid as much attention to Apple as they did to Microsoft during the 1990s, and to Google over the past four years.

Daniel Sokol, an associate law professor who focuses on antitrust at the University of Florida, thinks that Apple may simply have gotten away with facing serious anti-trust actions so far because government regulators are still learning how the markets work.

He thinks that Apple has not been around too long to be bad yet.

But Cupertino has fallen foul of regulators before, like in 2009 when the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into whether Apple and Google had been stifling competition by sharing two of the same directors, Eric Schmidt and Arthur Levinson. Schmidt resigned from Apple’s board and Levinson resigned from Google’s board.

In 2010, Apple, along with five other companies, was forced not to enter into any other “no-solicitation” agreements for five years.

However, there are signs that government regulators in the US and Europe are also monitoring Apple for any red flags that it is wielding key patents to gain an unfair competitive advantage in the mobile phone market.

Jobs predicted that the post-PC era will see consumerisation of technology and that could make Apple even more powerful than it is now. At the moment Apple can claim that there is a lot of competition in the tablet and smartphone market from Android, but if the company continues its campaign to patent troll Android to death then Apple could find itself in deep trouble.

The only thing that could save it is Windows based tablets, which if they eat into the competition would allow Apple to tell the courts that there is a lot of competition out there.

Apple seems to be aware that it is going to have to face off with the government sooner rather than later. At the end of 2010, it hired Kyle Andeer, a former antitrust lawyer for the FTC and Justice Department.